A federal appeals court in Boston took up the case of three Maine families who are challenging a long-standing state law prohibiting public tuition payments to religious schools.
The 1981 statute says that school districts without high schools can pay tuition to send students to surrounding public or private schools, but not to religious schools. A federal court judge ruled last year that the law did not violate the First Amendment, but the families appealed.
"A public education system should be one that promotes diversity and tolerance and exposes children to a broad range of ideas. Maine’s Legislature wisely chose to exclude religious schools from the public education tuition program. Parents certainly have the right to opt out of the public education system and send their children to religious schools, but public dollars should not be used for that purpose," said Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey in an emailed statement. "We are confident that our tuition system fully comports with the First Amendment, and we are confident that the courts will uphold it.”
But Tim Keller, a senior attorney with the Virginia-based Institute for Justice which is representing the families, says a recent Supreme Court ruling in Missouri should cast doubt on Maine's law. “We believe that same sort of religion-based discrimination violates our parents' rights, and has to be struck down under the free exercise clause of the constitution,” Keller says.
Groups including the ACLU and National School Boards Association have submitted briefs arguing that the Maine law is constitutional. Zach Heiden is the legal director at the ACLU of Maine.
“People have the right to send their kids to whatever school they want,” Heiden says. “But that does not obligate the state to pay for those schools and pay for religious education.”
The U.S. Department of Justice filed a brief in October supporting the parents in their appeal.
Updated to add Attorney General's statement 10:17 a.m. Jan. 9, 2020.